Phoebe Bridgers isn’t afraid of the dark. In fact she’s steadily barreling toward it, digging through bleakness to find moments of truth, playing a constant balancing act between literal and surreal. Her voice reflects the ideological touchstones of her generation (anxiety, distrust of authority, the blurred lines between friendship and romance), while cutting into the timeless themes of longing and hopelessness. Her second solo album Punisher, released on June 18th, explores magic, doom, and hope at once, deepening her perspective as a thoughtful songwriter.
Punisher opens with the instrumental track “DVD Menu,” a spacey snippet recalling an early-aughts selection screen, a byte of nostalgia that sets the album’s tone of ominous reflection. She builds on this eerie landscape in “Garden Song,” the album’s lead single, which shifts from scenes of her hometown in Pasadena to reflections on a hazily-remembered romance. Her tour manager Jeroen Vrijhoef hops on the backing vocals in a haunting baritone, hinting that you’re never quite alone. Though Bridgers often writes autobiographically, she uses music to conflate what’s real and what’s imagined. She tells Playboy that the line, “The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment’s getting smaller” came directly from a Los Angeles nutritionist, but in “Garden Song,” she places it in the context of a dream. In her words, the song is a spiritual sequel to “Smoke Signals,” the lead single from Stranger in the Alps, a dreamy tune about the unlikely wonder of finding a kindred spirit.
There’s often a layer of irony to Bridgers’ visual performances, especially in the videos for “Garden Song” and “Kyoto,” which feature Halloween costumes, practical effects, and poorly rendered graphics. “Kyoto” was supposed to be filmed on location in Japan, but with the specter of Coronavirus, the real city was swapped with a green screen city, where Bridgers zaps Godzilla with lasers and surfs on high speed trains. It’s cheesy and self-aware, juxtaposing her famously stony vocals. The skeleton costume Bridgers dons on the cover of Punisher and in recent internet performances also stands as a microcosm of her layered artistic identity: streaks of irony and nostalgia with classic emo undertones, mixing comfort with irreverence. But even if she’s sometimes flippant, she’s never too cool to care. Her music is too emotionally driven to be completely detached, and she’s too invested in the truth of what she’s singing for it to be iced over with a nonchalant glaze.
The titular track explores Bridgers’ relationship with her number one reference, Elliott Smith. It builds around the idea of a fan that’s too eager, too consumed with the fantasy of their idol to realize they’ve become creepy. “What if I told you I feel like I know you? But we never met,” she ponders, embodying the deep but one-sided relationship between songwriter and fan. It’s more feedback-heavy than her usual fare as she seems to be caught in a loop of fandom. She’s been a “punisher” for Smith, but now she has her own crop of punishers. This theme of distrust and ache, which she spins to be both romantic and cosmic, builds throughout the record, as she hops from personal anecdote to sweeping gesture. One of the most spiritually resonant moments on the album, though, happens on “Chinese Satellite,” a painful plea for a belief system. “I want to believe, that if I go outside I’ll see a tractor beam,” she yearns, the voice of someone who idealizes the comfort of religion, but can’t quite logically get there. This conundrum rings as sort of a generational truth for those like Bridgers who grew up in front of incessant screens full of bad news and have since developed a deep contempt for those in charge. Though the album was written entirely before the pandemic took hold of the U.S., it soundly resonates with the current moment, speaking to the realities of social isolation and the seeming crumble of civilization as we know it.
Throughout the album, Bridgers tosses off mundane details, but in her signature deadpan delivery, they hold heartbreaking significance. In the midst of “Moon Song,” a tune about the pain of loving someone who hate themselves, she coolly remembers that her birthday party was “nautical themed”. Seemingly unimportant details like this relish in the thought that sometimes it’s the color of life that hurts to recall, not just the anguish.
The album finishes with Bridgers’ biggest departure from her signature sound. “I Know The End” travels through the monotony of touring- “three clicks and I’m home,” to mundane horror of red states- “some America first rap country song,” to a slow drain toward apocalypse. “The end is near,” she solemnly chants as the track descends into far-away cries and a threatening, Sufjan Stevens-y horn section. The tune then disappears into the ether and all we’re left with is Bridgers’ breathy, almost soundless screams, which read either as muffled shrieks of terror or the spent voice of a screaming fan at a stadium show. Either way, something’s coming to a close, and she’s alone for it.
Author Carmen Maria Machado writes in the liner notes for Punisher, “Everyone knows the world is ending. They’ve been told as much, and they can see it in the streets, and they know the world is irreparably fucked, but most importantly they feel it among themselves; they know this goodness cannot last forever.” But Phoebe Bridgers does not cow down in the face of oblivion. She stares right through it, and finds its humanity.